Friday, 9 November 2012

Part two: more to fix


She told herself that she was justified in checking out what was going on. That it could be a fault that she, as head engineer, needed to investigate. A nervous glance around. Still no one there. She reached up and connected the motor back to the Trax rail, sent the start instruction and started to trundle forward. The corridor ended at a t-junction, so Brook had to disconnect her Trax motor, then reconnect it to the rail heading further in the out of bounds zone. After about 15 metres of tentative progress the familiar hum of the ship's drive started to mix with something slightly more metallic, a sort of scraping noise. Brook frowned, trying to thing what sort of ship machinery might be making such a noise, whether it should be making that noise, and if not, why wasn't she getting an error report through to engineering? 
The noise was definitely getting louder as she headed down the corridor. Scraping and ripping, almost as if something was tearing apart. Brook was headed towards rear of the crew section. A cold sweat was building on Brook's forehead. She increased the speed on the Trax, her legs swinging to trail behind as the machine accelerated in the zero g. 
Another junction was up ahead, so Brook was forced to slow again. While Brook wouldn't describe herself as being the sort of person prone to panic, she was now worried. Her hand slipped as she tried to disconnect the Trax motor, the machine jamming on the rail in her haste to pull it off. She swung upside down, planting feet either side of the rail to use her legs to help lever off the motor.

A dark shape flashed past the end of the corridor. 
The Trax motor forgotten, Brook pulled herself along the rail to the t-junction, cautiously peering round the edge of the corridor in the direction the shape had headed. There it was, four highly articulated metallic legs that extended across the whole diameter of the corridor as they grabbed and swung their way down it, connected by a fat cigar shaped body, moving swiftly in the zero g. 

A spyder
Brook shuddered.  It's just a drone  she told herself. With a stupidly spelled name at that. Some wally in PR was probably unfeasibly smug at coming up with the name for the drone when it was first invented. The early versions were tiny, could fit into the palm of a baby's hand. Designed to infiltrate suspected militant strongholds in the final days of the slum-wars, providing firing solutions for the larger drones, the spy-der name was apt. But then some evil person had the idea of making them bigger. Much bigger. If Brook ever found that person, they'd be eating crowbar for breakfast. 
Of all the drones that the ship carried, the spyder was the most unsettling to look at. Even more so than the rock-hoppers she'd watched that useless marine use on Hebe via the ship feed. The larger versions were almost perfect for use as ship security, in low or zero g conditions. It's main four arms, longer than the others, allowed it to near effortlessly guide itself along corridors, or through the larger air and water pipes. At one end of its body were two manipulator arms, about the size of a large man's, which were used for more delicate operations. Like ripping intruders' heads off. But they weren't ever the scariest part. That award went to the pincers located halfway along the fat body. If the spyder held itself upright, so that the cigar body was vertical, the pincers could be used to rip open locked hatches. Or crush a man in two at the waist, the pressure causing eyes to pop out.
That marine, Mason, had actually laughed at that part of the briefing video during their training. The briefing Brook had snuck into under the pretence of fixing a malfunctioning air recycler, but more of an attempt to cast an eye over the new recruits, miserable bunch as they turned out to be.   
So what was the spyder up to? Brook almost set off in pursuit, but held back. It was most likely some kind of drone control exercise for the marines. Sergeant Gumelar was forever coming up with complicated scenarios for them to run through. Something she really didn't want to stumble into the middle of. Unusual though to run the corridor exclusion script via central ship AI - the Sergeant would usually yell at Brook for an engineering run exclusion, easier to sort out, less dealing with the fastidious AI. 
Brook called back up the ship plan back into her iris augment to check to see if there was a electronic signature buried in the exclusion order, see where the request came from. The map blinked green, the exclusion had lapsed. The exercise over maybe? Brook ran back through the central AI edict logs. No record of the corridor shut down. Brook frowned, squinting slightly as she puzzled what was going on, an action that caused the display in her iris to warp and flex. She blinked, but the frown remained. A mystery. Brook hated mysteries. 
The mix of puzzlement and frustration convinced Brook that she was unlikely to get back to sleep, so after turning off the Trax motor override, she set a course for the canteen. Ship canteen was a hub for the human crew members, few as they were. Sparingly furnished with the ubiquitous black polymer moulded tables and chairs, each anchored to the floor, it could never be called homely. That the same tables and chairs, in the same formation, were also anchored to the ceiling for when gravity reversed during a ship breaking phase gave an unsettling impression. Like a ceiling mirror, except your reflection was missing. 
Brook floated through the main hatch and paused to check who was around. Although there was a centrally set AI official time, it didn't really mean much more than a way to agree appointments. With no day/night cycle on board the crew generally settled into their own routines. Brook stuck fairly close to Earth standard - she would rarely be described as unconventional - but the others varied. 
Which was why Ship Liaison Samuel Billington was eating the culinary drone's version of a Sunday roast at 5:53 am on a Tuesday.
Brook had intended to grab maybe some porridge, but the sight of the vat-sack beef joint smothered in whatever textured vegetable proteins the ship could mash together to approximate gravy this early in the morning turned her stomach. She was still staring at the nutrient bag containing the meal when Billington spoke
"Hello Brook. Nice to see you" the man spoke in an oddly clipped accent that always struck Brook as sounding like a computer first learning to talk. If it wasn't for the fact that today's machines were capable of much more realistic enunciation, Brook would have tagged him as some kind of android impersonator. If androids existed outside of science fiction that was. And even if they did, no android would be built with hair that bad. A comb-over in zero g just didn't work.
"Please join me" although it was said without conviction, more a dim sense of duty. 
"Uh-huh" Brook pinged her order to the AI as she pushed off from the hatchway and drifted over to the table he was at. Billington was alone at a table of four, so she clipped herself into the seat diagonally opposite him. That way if she looked straight ahead she wasn't faced with the vision of him slurping his meal out of the nutrient bag. 
"How are you" another slurp "this" an eye flick to check ship time "morning?" the question rounded off with another slurp for good measure. 
"Not bad" she replied, accepting the coffee flask that the small aerial drone brought over "Had a door hub chip blow in sector 13"
"Mmmm-hmmmm" slurp
"Got it sorted, though"
"Mmmmm-hmmmm" slurp
"Before I was attacked by a small fleet of space elephants"
"Mmmmm-hmmmm" two slurps as he sucked the remainder of the meal out, one globule briefly escaping into the zero g before Billington caught it on a finger and hastily consumed it, lips smacking. 
Brook rolled her eyes, took a sip of coffee and ran through the latest engineering reports. All bar one would be handled by her drones, the remainder could darn well be sorted by Phelp. Do her some good to get out, enough time spent moping now. She sent her trainee the instruction, in text form rather than direct call, anything to avoid having to listen to the girl whine about Si any more. 
"You know anything about the corridor closure, sectors 15 through 21?" she raised an eyebrow - it was a long shot asking Billington, but worth a try
"The...corridor...closure?" Billington repeated the words tentatively as if they were foreign to him. One hand nervously smoothing down the comb-over, which promptly floated back up as he turned to look at Brook. 
"I do not think I do"
"Didn't suppose so" she replied "Not like you're supposed to be in constant close contact with the AI or anything" this under her breath, although in the near silent canteen and less than half a metre from Billignton, there was no way he didn't hear.
"I hear we are headed towards Pallas" the change of subject was awkward
"You don't say? I got the same e-burst that we all did, Billi" Brook was being deliberately provocative, tiredness driving sarcasm. 
"Please call me Billington" it was a plea rather than an instruction. 
Brook almost felt sorry for the pathetic little man. Almost. Billington was the closest you got to a human starship captain. But he was nothing like the men and women you'd see in the old time 2D's. The job of Ship Liaison was effectively a go between the central AI and human crew. The position needed someone dynamic and charismatic, able to interpret often complex AI instructions and then bring the crew together to get the job done. 
But what the position got and what it needed were two very different things. 
The problem was that dynamism and charisma are next to impossible to assess by even the most sophisticated conglom AI. Which means it was left to the humans. Which means it got screwed up. A well paid (by Earth standards) position in a semi-respectable job controlled by senior human execs was a recipe for nepotism. That the decent paid and respectable job was on a space craft that kept the employee away from Earth for months or years at a time was a recipe for getting rid of any black sheep in the family. 
Billington was a nephew of a long time LH board member. With no particular academic talent, nor anything even approaching entrepreneurial spirit, he'd started to become more and more of a liability within the complex social circles occupied by his family. Unable to hold a conversation at a technical, business or political level he became more and more withdrawn. When he was forced to make an appearance at some gathering or other, his awkwardness made him prone to regress. And with one tantrum at a tea party too many, the difficult young man was, literally, shipped out. It would build character, argued his uncle. 
Shipboard Billington was just as awkward around others as he was Earth-side, with no miraculous development of talent for his new found profession. However, that he wasn't dangerously  inept was considered a plus by the crew that had served under other Liaisons on the conglom intervention ships. And so a sort of unspoken compromise was formed. Billington would just keep out of the way and let the rest of the crew get on with things; in return the crew wouldn't push him out of a "faulty" airlock. This was a compromise that Brook was now finding it harder and harder to resist breaking in her sleep deprived state. 
"Sorry Billi...ington" she mumbled "Got to go fix, er, a flux capacitor in sector seven" this change in subject just as awkward as anything the Ship Liaison could manage, but excuse enough for her to leave.
Brook headed back out the room, unfinished coffee left behind  as she pushed herself away from the table. Billington watched her head out with a contemplative look. That look slowly gave way, to a smile.

He'd show them.

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